Monday 26 August 2013


(Brian De Palma, 1987)

The Untouchables was released in the US in June 1987. That marks it out firmly as a Summer Blockbuster, or at least states that it was intended as one by its studio. But it seems to possess an insane pedigree and class for a Blockbuster. Directed by a controversial auteur who has always had one foot in the arthouse (Brian DePalma), written by one of America's greatest living playwrights (David Mamet), with a score by Ennio Morricone, costumes by Armani and a cast including two of the Twentieth Century's great male screen icons (Sean Connery and Robert DeNiro) alongside a couple of then up-and-coming new stars (Kevin Costner and Andy Garcia), the film almost seems too good to be true. And it has the temerity to be incredibly entertaining, with two fantastic DePama set-pieces, while also slyly getting in its digs at the hypocrisy of American political policies, both in the Prohibition and (by extension) Reagan eras.

It is a film of great moments and great scenes, which lessen the impact of its structural problems. After the departure of Connery's character, the narrative never really recovers the same drive, though DePalma's Odessa Steps Train Station sequence distracts the audience in the immediate aftermath of his terrific death scene. But we are buoyed by the numerous brilliant moments we have already witnessed. There is DeNiro's baseball bat wielding "enthusiasms" speech (based on an actual Capone execution of two seditious mobsters), wherein he seems to allow himself to coast and grimace and leer, almost caricaturing his own persona to highly entertaining effect. DePalma ends the scene with a beautiful aerial shot, too. Then there is Connery's selection of Andy Garcia's character for a place on the team, baiting him with ethnic slurs, until Garcia pulls a pistol on him and sticks it beneath his chin with the words: " Its better than you, you stinking Irish pig." Garcia is shy and charming here in a way he never really recovered in his career, grinning as Connery praises him. 

Then there is the gun battle on the Canadian border, in which Charles Martin Smith distinguishes himself in a berserker attack on two trucks of mobsters - DePalma depicting shotgun blasts as resulting in pink clouds of blood hanging in the air, Morricone turning in something akin to a Classical Western score, Connery ending a chase-scene with a volley of gunfire into the air and the words "Enough of this running shit." And then there is the exemplary first person POV stalking of Connery before he is assassinated, the director amusing himself with his facility with the medium itself, a filmmaker with enough maturity to take on a project like this, without the auteurist quirks and motifs of much of the rest of his work, and turn it into arguably his best "popular" film. 
But the best scene is a brief exchange of charged dialogue between Connery and Costner, sitting in a church-pew, captured by DePalma in a showy two-shot. Because it demands - and gets - the best from Mamet, from the two actors, and from the Director. It sets the tone for what is to come, defines the battle at the heart of the film, and lays out the crucial dynamic between the hero and his mentor. Later, just before they bust down a door into one of Capone's distillerys, Connery tells Costner that once the door is open, there can be no turning back. But really, that moment is already passed. It came when Connery laid out the fight for him and Costner asserted his desire for it.
Mamet is a proud son of Chicago, and there is a lot of that city's working class hard-boiled straight-talking in his dialogue. But much of his work as a Screenwriter for hire feels like the hackwork that it undoubtedly is, his touch barely discernible, as if he is trying to lose what makes him distinctive, subsuming himself for the good of the project. However, there is the sense that he feels something more for The Untouchables, key to the mythic history of his hometown as the story is. So his script is full of great one-liners, most of them given to Connery, and a couple of classic Capone monologues. It is also commendably tight and well-paced for much of its running time, excellent in establishing its characters concisely, and makes its odd conclusion - Ness has to break the rules, by murdering a man, in order to win - a crowd-pleasing moment. 

No comments:

Post a Comment